Behind the Scenes: Women’s Tax Resistance League

Laurence Housman wrote an autobiography called The Unexpected Years that includes the following story of his sister Clemence’s imprisonment for tax resistance during the women’s suffrage struggle.

I believed that tax-resistance, so organized that the government would be forced to seize not the goods but the persons of the resisters was the best and most constitutional lines for militancy to adopt. But it required time — about eighteen months in my sister’s case — to materialize effectively. And the Militant Leaders, always assuming that they were going to get the vote in a shorter time than that, though they did not discountenance it, refused to make it a plank in their organized policy. They preferred the more spectacular and provocative course of deputations, election-fights, and interruptions at meetings.

It took my sister Clemence eighteen months and more to get the matter so arranged that, in her own words, she might give her vote against the Government “at the Holloway polling booth”. It was not much satisfaction to her militant mind, to refuse to pay taxes, if in the end they could be distrained for. A good many of the tax-resisters were content with that form of protest; it did not content her. But the other and better way needed some planning; it also took time. She rented a holiday cottage, stocked it with furniture not her own, went occasionally to stay in it, and, when the time came, refused to pay inhabited house duty which amounted to 4s. 2d. In course of time, after repeated application, she was summoned, and law costs were added. As there was nothing on which the court could distrain, the legal process went slowly on, and the Government, in its vain attempt to extract 4s. 2d. from a pocket which could not be picked, ran up a bill which amounted to several pounds. When this enlargement of the debt failed to bring her to reason, arrest and imprisonment were threatened as the only alternative. A polite emissary from Somerset House came and interviewed her; and we heard afterwards that he reported her as being “such a lady”, that it would only need the actual presentation of the warrant for arrest to bring about submission.

So the next day the warrant was presented, and, failing to take effect, the warrant officer retired for fresh instructions; and a day later did come with a reinforcement, and actually arrested her. Like all good comedy there was in it an element of pain; but it was very funny. My sister said, “Are you going to walk me to Holloway?” “Oh, no!” she was assured, “We shall take you in a taxi.” “I shall not pay for it,” she said. “Oh, no, of course not, we shall pay for it.” I then offered to pay the extra sixpence, if I might come too. They were most kind about it; one of them, to make room for me, went and sat by the driver; and so we all drove to Holloway, and as we passed through the gates, the taxi, for which the Government was paying, registered the exact amount of the original debt 4s. 2d.

A week later she was out again; and I heard then some of her experiences during that eventful week of enforced idleness. Knowing her rapacity for work, “What did you do all the time?” I asked. “I sat and bubbled,” she said; and I realized that triumphant mental satisfaction might be, for a week at any rate, a good substitute for industry.

She was interviewed by the governor. “How long are you in for?” he inquired. “For life,” she told him. What did she mean by that? She explained: “I am here until I pay; and I am never going to pay.” And she never did, either then or afterwards, until she got the vote.

The medical officer came to see her twice; it was soon evident they wanted to release her on the score of health. “You are eating too little,” he said. “I am not a big eater,” she told him, “even though I lead an active life. Here I am doing nothing, so I eat less. But I am perfectly well, thank you,” That excuse having failed, after a week they let her out for no reason stated.

I heard shortly after from a mutual acquaintance that the governor had said to him, “What did those fools mean by sending us a person like Miss Housman?” It is pleasant to know that officialdom sometimes looks foolish even to its own officials.

Housman also takes credit and/or blame for getting Bernard Shaw to speak at a rally for imprisoned suffragist Mark Wilks:

I must have been a considerable nuisance in those days to authors, actors, and others of my acquaintance, who were friendly to the cause but did not want to be bothered by it. It wasn’t their job, any more than it was mine; and though most of our leading authors signed a declaration in favour, few of them did more. I did on one occasion get Bernard Shaw to speak at a protest meeting over the imprisonment of Mr. Wilkes for his wife’s taxes, which she conscientiously had refused to pay. That secured us a big meeting; he was genially brutal in his treatment of the situation, and made the unfortunate Mrs. Wilkes cry by declaring that, were she his wife, he would take all possible steps to divorce her for so callously allowing him to be imprisoned for her debts. I had to speak after him, and I said, untruthfully, that I was sure he had not meant to be unkind. I think he had meant to be, and thought that she thoroughly deserved it. Mr. Wilkes was, in fact, a willing victim: though it was perfectly true that, with only a working-man’s wage, he was unable to pay the income-tax of a wife who was a successful medical practitioner.

Agnes Edith Metcalf’s Woman’s Effort: a chronicle of British women’s fifty years’ struggle for citizenship also has sections of note on the Housman imprisonment and on the tax resistance front in general:

The Women’s Tax Resistance League

Special mention must be made of one of the many Suffrage Societies which sprang into existence during the decade before the outbreak of war. With the Freedom League originated the idea that in view of the dictum that taxation and representation must go together, a logical protest on the part of voteless women would be to decline to pay Imperial taxes until they should have a share in electing Members of the Imperial Parliament. From onwards, Mrs. [Charlotte] Despard had adopted this form of protest, with notable results. In the following year, some of her goods were seized, but difficulties occurred, as one auctioneer after another refused to have anything to do with selling them. When one was finally found, the sale was attended by a large number of Mrs. Despard’s followers, who succeeded in holding up the proceedings until requested by her to desist. When her piece of plate was at last put up for sale, the bidding was very brisk, and the article was eventually knocked down to a certain Mr. Luxembourg for double its estimated value. This gentleman insisted on returning it to Mrs. Despard, who accepted it on behalf of the Women’s Freedom League, among whose archives, suitably inscribed in memory of the occasion, it holds an honoured place.

In subsequent years, various devices were adopted with the object of compelling Mrs. Despard’s submission. Thus she, for whom prison had no terrors, was threatened with imprisonment in default of payment; she was summoned before the High Court, when, in her absence, judgment was pronounced against her. On only two other occasions, however, was distraint levied.

, a separate society, with the above title, was formed, with Mrs. [Margaret] Kineton Parkes as secretary, for experience showed that a special knowledge of the technicalities of the law was necessary, and special machinery had to be set up. Those who addressed themselves to this business were rewarded by the discovery of curious anomalies and irregularities of the law where women were concerned. Thus, for instance, it was revealed that whereas married women are not personally liable to taxation (the Income Tax Act of never having been brought into line with the Married Women’s Property Acts), nevertheless payment of taxes was illegally exacted of them whenever possible. With the assistance of the expert advice of Mrs. [Ethel] Ayres Purdie and others, many cases of injustice and overcharges were exposed and circumvented, Somerset House officials being mercilessly worried.

Imprisonments for Non-Payment of Taxes

It was in , that the first imprisonments in connection with this particular form of protest took place. Miss [Constance] Andrews of Ipswich was sent to prison for a week for refusing to pay her dog’s tax, and about the same time, Mrs. [Emma] Sproson of Wolverhampton served a similar sentence for the same offence. The latter was, however, rearrested, and sentenced this time to five weeks’ imprisonment, being placed in the Third Division in Stafford Gaol. She thereupon entered on the hunger strike, and on the personal responsibility of the Governor, without instructions from the Home Office, she was transferred to the First Division, where she completed her sentence.

Imprisonments in various parts of the country thereafter took place with some frequency, but whenever possible this extreme course appears to have been avoided, and resisters’ goods were seized and sold by public auction, the officials reserving the right of adopting whichever course they deemed most suitable. By this means, auctioneers’ sale rooms, country market-places, corners of busy thoroughfares, and all manner of unlikely spots, became the scene of protests and demonstrations.

Miss Housman’s Imprisonment

The case which excited the most interest was that of Miss Clemence Housman, sister of the well-known author, who, having stoutly declined to pay the trifling sum of 4s. 6d. (which by dint of writs, High Court Procedure, etc., in due course mounted up to over £6), and not having goods which could be seized, was arrested by the Sheriff’s Officer, and conveyed to Holloway, there to be detained until she paid. A storm of protest arose, meetings being held at Mr. Housman’s residence in Kensington, outside Holloway Gaol, and in Hyde Park on . After a week’s incarceration, Miss Housman, who had been singularly well treated in the First Division, was unconditionally released, and on inquiring of the Solicitor of Inland Revenue how she stood in the matter, she was informed that it was closed by her arrest and subsequent release.

By way of celebrating victories such as these, the League held a John Hampden dinner at the Hotel Cecil in , when some 250 guests assembled and listened to speeches from prominent Suffragists of both sexes, when we may be sure that the moral of the story of John Hampden was duly pointed, and many a modern parallel was quoted. A novel feature of the evening’s proceedings was the appearance of a toast mistress, in the person of Mrs. Arncliffe Sennett.

Mr. Mark Wilks’ Imprisonment

In an incident occurred which illustrated both the anomalous position which married women occupy under the law and also the impossibility of enforcing the law where consent is withheld. Dr. Elisabeth Wilks, being one of those who held with the Liberal dictum that taxation and representation should go together, had for some years past refused to pay her Imperial taxes, and on two occasions a distraint had been executed on her goods, and they had been sold by public auction. Then it struck her that her “privileged” position under the law would afford her protection from further annoyance of this kind, and being a married woman, she referred the officials to her husband. When application was made to the latter for his wife’s income tax return, he told the harassed officials that he did not possess the required information, nor did he know how to procure it. After some delays and negotiations, the Treasury kindly undertook to make the assessment itself, charging Mr. Wilks at the unearned rate, though Mrs. Wilks was well known to be a medical woman, whose income was derived from her practice. After over two years of correspondence and threats of imprisonment, since Mr. Wilks sturdily refused to produce the sum demanded, he was arrested on and conveyed to Brixton Gaol, there to be detained until he paid. Still he remained obdurate, while friends outside busied themselves on his behalf. Protests poured into the Treasury offices, Members of Parliament were inundated with the like, deputations waited on everybody concerned, and public meetings on the subject were held in great number. The result was that, at the end of a fortnight, Mr. Wilks was once more a free man.

Other Tax-Resisters

Legislators had recently provided women with additional reasons for refusing to pay taxes. In the National Insurance Act became the law of the land, and defects in that Act as far as it concerned women, which were pointed out at the time, have become more and more apparent every year that the Act has been in force. Some few modifications were made in their favour, but they had no effective means of expressing their views. Again, by means of a Resolution, which occupied a few hours of discussion on , Members of Parliament voted themselves a salary of £400 a year, and only one member, Mr. Walter McLaren, raised his voice to protest against the fresh injustice which this proposal inflicted on women, who were not only subject to legislation in the framing of which they had no voice, but were further called upon to pay those who thus legislated for them…

The Revenue authorities did not repeat the experiment of arresting any women resisters on whom it was not possible to levy distraint, with the result that the Women’s Tax-Resistance League claimed to have a growing list of members who paid no taxes, and who, in spite of repeated threats of imprisonment, were still at large.

Distraint for non-payment was, however, frequent, with the result that up and down the country, and as far north as Arbroath, the gospel of tax-resistance was carried, and secured many adherents, including members of the enfranchised portion of the community, some of whom, in their official capacities, gave public support to the rebels. Many auctioneers of th better class refused to sell the goods of tax-resisters, and it is on record that one who had done so sent his fee as a donation to the League.

Two members of the League, Mrs. [Isabella] Darent Harrison of St. Leonard’s and Mrs. [Kate] Harvey of Bromley, barricaded themselves in their houses, and succeeded in keeping the officials who came to make the distraint at bay, the former for a period of several weeks, and the latter for a period of no less than eight months. In both cases, an entry was eventually made by force, but much public sympathy was evinced in both cases, and crowded meetings of protest were held in the largest local halls available.

It is interesting to record that on , a statue was unveiled in the market-place of Aylesbury to the memory of John Hampden, who in the time of Charles Ⅰ. had refused the ship money which that monarch had illegally levied on his subjects. The sum involved was the trifling one of 20s., but, rather than pay it, John Hampden suffered himself to be imprisoned. He was subsequently released without a stain upon his character, and a statue to this rebel stands in no less hallowed a spot than the House of Commons, of which assembly he was a Member.

An application on the part of the Women’s Tax-Resistance League of the twentieth century to be officially represented at the unveiling by Lord Rothschild of the statue erected to his memory in Aylesbury was met with a refusal. That the spirit which animated this seventeenth-century fighter was not, however, dead was evident when, at the conclusion of the official ceremony, a little procession of tax-resisters, supported by men sympathizers, approached the statue and silently laid a wreath at its foot…

Tax Resistance

Throughout tax resisters continued to defy the revenue officials, with varying results. Among those who resisted paying their taxes for the first time may be mentioned [Mary Russell] the Duchess of Bedford, Miss Beatrice Harraden, Mrs. Flora Annie Steele, and Miss [Ethel] Sargant, the last-named of whom presided over a section of the British Association later in the year, being the first woman to fill such a position.

Mrs. Harvey successfully withstood another siege in connection with her inhabited house duty, and her goods, when eventually seized, failed to realize the sum required by some £8, for the uproar created in the auction-room by sympathizers was so great that the auctioneer abandoned his task. Mrs. Harvey also refused to take out a licence for her gardener (by name Asquith), or to stamp his Insurance card. For these two offences she was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment, in default of a fine, but was released at the end of one month, in a very weak condition of health, which was in no way attributable to her own “misconduct.”

There were many other cases of resistance to the Insurance Act, it being an open secret that the Freedom League did not insure its employees.

Captain Gonne, who refused to pay his taxes as a protest against the treatment to which women were being subjected, was also arrested, but was released within a few hours, the reason being, so it was claimed, that in arresting him the revenue officials had been guilty of a serious technical blunder.

Several other resisters besides Mrs. Harvey barricaded their houses against the tax collector, and at Hastings the demonstration arranged in connection with the sale of Mrs. Darent Harrison’s goods led to an organized riot, the result being that the local Suffrage Club brought an action against the Corporation for damage done, which they won. Undeterred by warnings that it would be impossible to hold a public meeting in Hastings in support of tax resistance, the League nevertheless determined to do so, and, as a matter of fact, everything passed off in a quiet and orderly manner, Lady Brassey being in the chair. In subsequent years, this policy of open and constitutional rebellion on tax resistance lines has been maintained by Mrs. Darent Harrison.